Tribute to the wonderful Koreans – 3

Patchwork

I truly think Korea could lose all its greatness, if there were not Korean people living there. Along the road, I want to make every one of you want to meet Korean people. In order to do that, I thought of writing a series of portraits of extraordinary friends I was lucky to make.

For this third article on the subject, I thought I would change from describing specific friends. This time, let me introduce you to “Piano In Yonsei”. During the second semester, I got into one of my university’s club. Being president of an association in Sciences Po, I was shocked by the way Korean manage their clubs.

The first encounters were quite disturbing. It started by a two pages questionnaire to fill in about our motivation and an interview to get in. Five Korean students of the club in a jury, asking questions and listening to the piano skills of candidates coming in, three by three. When I got in the room, I felt the pressure. Not on me, but on my fellow future-or-not-members. They were shivering, tripping over words and sweating as hell. However, when they started playing, I realized they were way better than me. Kindly enough, the jury asked me questions in English. Outside the American Idolish jury, everybody from the club I met seemed really fun and nice.

After my doubting hands’ catastrophic performance, I got a call asking me to be on time for the first meeting of the club. I got accepted! More surprising, I was the first, and the only non-Korean accepted in the club.

Against all the odds, my semester in Piano In Yonsei has been the greatest gift I could wish for. Part from my improvements on my piano skills, what made this experience unforgettable was my club mates.

There were forty Koreans and me, they all had Kakaotalk (Korean Whatsapp), and I did not. However, they did everything to make me feel part of their club, or more precisely their family. We had meetings every week, where we were talking about the future activities of the club (concerts, picnics, weekends etc.), having dinner, and as you may suspect it, drinking. Way too much drinking…

They took me to a “Members Training”, AKA a weekend of piano playing and soju drinking, sometimes both at the same time. They taught me more drinking games than I ever thought there existed. They taught me all the songs and dances of Yonsei. They made a lot of effort to speak a Korean I could understand or to speak English. They taught me much more about Korean friendship and culture than any course could do.

After a few months, I understood why they were interviewing us to get in: they wanted the ones who would make the most of the club. They wanted passionate and fun people to make their group so bonded.

Thank you for everything Piano In Yonsei, you have made my year!

PIY

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How I ended up dressing as a Christmas tree

It is known for a fact that gay men are passionate about football, beer and bacon. Unlike most of them, I love fashion – incredibly unsurprising. It is sad to say this, but what takes me the most time in my morning ritual, is tp find how I will dress for the rest of the day – what a shallow guy. It has become especially long for me to choose since I got back from Korea, where I shopped, shopped, shopped and shopped again.

Capture d’écran 2014-04-09 à 18.20.07I do not plan on detailing the Korean fashion style or trends, some people know it much better than I do and dedicate their blogs to this topic. However, I thought it would be much more fun to analyze how it affected my wardrobe. At the end of my study abroad year, a street style blogger took a photo of me, when I saw the picture on his blog (http://blog.naver.com/abpd), I realized Korea may have harmed my sense of style – at least, Parisian style. Look at the shoes! ——->

I would like to give you little pieces of advice, if you want to make the most of Korean clothes culture. Do not be scared, you might not end up with such terrible shoes as I did. Forget about Dongdaemun, everybody talks about it all the time but it is not that cheap, the clothes quality is really low, it is a mess and you have to bargain crazy. To me, best places to shop were:

  • MyeongDong: not for all the H&Ms but their Korean equivalents, such as Giordano, Eight Seconds or Spao.
  • Garosu-Gil: more for the atmosphere (trees, coffees and golden youth) and the concept stores or great designers.
  • Itaewon: for the large sized shoes (impossible to find elsewhere)

Final advice, there is one paradise for shopping in Seoul: Åland. You can find this concept store in MyeongDong, Garosu-Gil, Hongdae and now, in Sinchon (inside U-Plex, the department store for young people). This place changed my life. The shops offer a selection of the best pieces from famous and absolutely unknown designers, as well as a flea market (the biggest one being in MyeongDong). In the flea market part, I found the greatest treasures, including countless shirts and pants, and most of all my Christmas Tree Pullover (which you can see in the article “Yes You can live the city).

Final gift for you to make fun of me: my attempt with a friend to do a new “The Kooples” ad campaign with swimming pool flip flaps and socks in them:

Jean et clémence

Old Korean Women – for Better or Worse

In May, my parents came to visit me in Korea. The day they arrived, I went to the airport to welcome them and bring them to their guesthouse. When we were queuing at the bus tickets counter, I saw this old Korean women – a so-called Ajumma – walking toward us, or more precisely, ahead of us in the queue. When she settled herself before us, I started telling her in Korean that we were there before, which meant, she should be queuing behind us. She was so surprised I could speak the language, she went behind us and started praising my Korean skills and telling my parents they should be proud of me.

This anecdote is a textbook illustration of what Ajummas are. One rough, rude and scary side; the other side: sweet, adorable and caring. Be aware, in Korea, they have absolute power. If you dare sitting on a seat reserved for elderlies on the subway, you may be shout out or even slapped by an Ajumma. Knowing this, I thought it could be interesting to introduce you to the wonderfully paradoxical world of Ajumonies – polite way of saying Ajumma.

Of course, there are all kind of Ajummas.

295607_529710063751743_45498552_n1st type: the heartbreaking ones selling vegetables on the street – few serious sentences here. Korea does not give pensions to non-working old people. If elderlies do not benefit from the support of their children, they have to find any ways they can to earn money. Even if Seoul has so few hobos, the city is full of Ajummas doing all kind of contingent works. Part from the street vendors, there are those who clean subways and public bathes, those who give clairvoyance consultations and even those who filter rain water in the gutter.

2nd type: Imo-nims or the evil/adorable waitresses. In most restaurants there are Ajummas cooking and waitressing. Some will not try to speak slower even if they know you cannot understand, or even spit in your food. What did you expect? If you are white, you are a Korean girl rapist. In the meantime, some old Korean waitresses are the most adorable persons you will meet. If they start telling you: “you look like an actor”, “you are so handsome”, “please seat here, I will bring you free kimbabs”, you are dealing with the endearing kind. In this case, shout “Imo!” in the restaurant when you want to order something, it means “Aunt!” and they love it.

969307_528891367166946_1671600648_n3rd type: the colorful hikers. National sport number one, hiking is the favorite weekend leisure of retired couples. Along your way, you will see long lines of flashy colored windcheaters worn by gossiping Ajummas. My dad was so impressed by the amount of them that he took the picture on the right. Those Ajummas, can be offering you food and beverages at the end of the hike, cheering with you and singing traditional songs, as well as, despising you with a cold look, saying loudly you should not be here.

In a nutshell, there might be diverse Ajummas, but they all have one thing in common, they all are permed.

Platoon Kunsthalle

You may be surprised by the title of this article. What has to do an Oliver Stone war movie with the German for « art gallery » in a blog about Korea?  Well, the Platoon Kunsthalle was actually one of my favorite places to go out in Seoul.

The concept: located in the fancy district of “Gangnam-Gu Office”, the Platoon is a German art gallery, made of German containers directly shipped from Berlin, which hosts art pieces, art performances, a bar, a rooftop and a club. You may think this is a pretentious place for wealthy Koreans and pseudo-art-interested internationals with nothing else to do. And… You would be right. I admit my sin, my life goes down to being a hipster – sometimes.

From time to time, I would wear my freshly found second-hand-Christmas-tree-pullover and take a long hour and a half subway ride to Gangnam, in order to attend a rooftop silent disco party or a DJ-VJ-WJ party. If I recall well, DJ stands for Disc Jockey, VJ for Video Jockey and WJ for Web Jockey. Do not ask me what these guys do exactly, I just remember it was fairly swag to say: “Oh god the WJ in Platoon yesterday was so A-MA-ZING!”

I realize I may have lost any credibility with this article, however, eating a hot dog, whilst listening to the newest Berliner DJ, whilst talking to an art magazine editor, stands for really good memories to me. Another reason to go is the extremely hot 45 year’s old tall blond German owner with a semi-grunge-semi-classy style. But before you get your hopes to high, I have tried flirting with him a whole night until his gorgeous young blond wife came… Credibility lost for the second time.

Nevertheless, if you wish to change from drinking soju in a sojuhof, you may want to consider going to the Platoon. At least, you can make fun of the crazy outfits and the Korean golden youth.

And if two times were not enough, here is the third time for me to lose all credibility. This picture is an attempt to look cool in a silent disco party on Platoon’s rooftop.

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Yes, you can leave the city

Among all the outstanding aspects of studying in Sciences Po is the expectation the school has on your year abroad. The school administration is clever enough to understand that studying abroad is not made to actually learn things, but to experience. To illustrate, I got credits for my Taekwondo class and they are taken into account in my Sciences Po’s credits, which means: part of my diploma comes from 2 hours of screaming with Master Kim. No wonder I had the time to travel, and this is the point of this article.

I intend here to give you advices on how to make the most of your free time in Korea. Against what you might fear, considering you do not speak the language or you did not book any hotels, you can just stuff your backpack and a few hours later, you can start sightseeing anywhere in Korea.

First thing first, do not bother booking train tickets, Korea has an incredibly efficient intercity bus system. You have many bus terminals in Seoul, the most famous being Central City Bus Terminal, Express Bus Terminal and Nambu Bus Terminal. You can check the destinations of each bus terminal easily on the internet, so I will not detail that.

547014_10151882199379057_12824841_nOnce you arrive at the bus terminal, just go to the counter, give them the name of the city or area you wish to go to, buy your tickets and you are on. Little piece of advice, for a few thousand wons more (something like 3€), you can upgrade for an “Udeung” Bus which is way too comfortable. As you can see on the picture…

Take just what you need for 2-3 days and enjoy your visit. Encounter locals, eat wonderful food and get lost somewhere in a National Park!

For the night, the easiest way is to ask any taxi driver or tourist information for the nearest public bath (7€ a night). Refer to my “Chilling Naked” post if you need further information on public bathes. Go back to the bus terminal and back to work on Monday morning!

To convince you how easy it is and how far you can go, let me tell you this brief story. From an island in the South of Korea I took a boat to the Tongyeong harbor, from there a bus to the bus terminal of the city, then a direct bus to Seoul Nambu terminal, a subway ride, a few minutes by walking and I was home! All in maximum 5 hours!

Tribute to the wonderful Koreans – 2

I truly think Korea could lose all its greatness, if there were not Korean people, living there. Along the road, I want to make every one of you want to meet Korean people. In order to do that, I thought of writing a series of portraits of extraordinary friends I was lucky to make.

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It is time for me to introduce you to the softest person I know, KyeongEun. While the “Buddy Program” (also known as “Mentor’s club”) of Yonsei was not that efficient (to say the least), the “Language Exchange Program” has been a great chance to me. I registered too late, my future partner had not been match with a French person as she requested, she left a classified ad, and magic happened.

The Lord works in mysterious ways – as some would say, and he did really well. Part from the valuable vocabulary and grammar she taught me in Korean, I am mostly grateful for KyeongEun to be the most caring, sweet and adorable friend of all.

We started to see each other at least once a week. I particularly remember one of our first dinners where we started talking about our past relationships. When KyeongEun heard my sad first love story (aren’t they all sad?), she had the most unusual reaction, she cried. I thought she must have lived a similar experience and my story was resonating on her own wounds. It was not the case.

To those who might think she is too emotional I want to reply that she is just too caring. I discovered, over the time we spent together, that she understands and feel the emotions of people around her. Always having the right word, she is able to touch you with a poetic glaze. Much more Korean than SeJeong if I could say, culturally speaking, KyeongEun had the beauty of Korean kindness rooted in her.

A year after, she came to my hometown in the Alps and instead of walking to the top of Yonsei’s mountain, we went to the top of the Hyatt Regency Tower in Paris, for a drink. Each city has its appeal.

The Hill

When I decided to study in Korea for a year, I realized it may not be the best place on earth to meet gay men. To be blunt, I thought I was doomed to a year of abstinence. This was until I discovered “Homo Hill”: queendom of fun and flesh.

Map Homo HillTake exit 3 at Itaewon station (the American neighborhood), walk straight ahead, you will end up in front of a gas station. On your right, you will see a street going uphill. On the sidewalk on your right, there are  transgender prostitutes clubs, on the sidewalk on your left, African American clubs. The first street on the left is where ladies of the night congregate (Hooker Hill), second street on the left, the gay street (more precisely the gay back alley), also known as Homo Hill. Add the mosque two streets behind, you understand that this tiny area is where Koreans have ghettoized all the dropouts. And most surprisingly, everybody fits there, even the cops wandering around.

041In a 50 meter long back alley, gay people managed to pack in a dozen bars and clubs. Thank god (or in this case, Lady Gaga) they did! Coming from an aging gay neighborhood in Paris, Homo Hill felt like heaven. People are young and here they run wild. On Saturday nights, the bars are so packed that everybody is outside, turning the street into one big gay club. Kpop and Idol music is loud; some waiters are on heels; the crowd is cosmopolitan; and unlike Shortbus, everybody does not “come here to get f***ed”. Forget the feeling of being hunted meat as you do in Europe, and welcome to real fun.

In later posts I will detail the people I met there or stories that happened to me, but for now, I simply want to raise the question: how gay life can be so much fun in a country that believes gay people do not exist?

As mentioned before Koreans are rather chauvinistic, they believe they share common blood. They also believe homosexuality cannot be found in this blood. Of course, Korea is no different from the rest of the world, there are LGBTQI* people. According to Korean custom, people leave their parents’ home only when they get married. Gay marriage is not permitted, which means that gay people must live with their parents their whole life. The only gay guys I met who were gay and living alone, were in modern families, or had fled to another country, then returned to Korea, saying they were mature enough to lead their own life.

I am truly amazed by the ability of the Korean gay community to forget this for a night, and to have the most wonderful party. I will do everything in my power to help them in their fight for equality. To all the LGBTQI* people in Korea, do not doubt yourselves, go to the hill, you will find support.

 

* Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transsexual, Queer, Intersexual

Tribute to the wonderful Koreans – 1

I truly think Korea could lose all its greatness, if there were not Korean people, living there. Along the road, I want to make every one of you want to meet Korean people. In order to do that, I thought of writing a series of portraits of extraordinary friends I was lucky to make.

The first Korean person I met was when I was 13. Bored of living in a tiny secluded village in the Alps, I registered on a website called studentsoftheworld.com. Even if I went there to meet Japanese people (manga fan at the time – nobody’s perfect), lots of Koreans started writing to me. 8 years after, one of them became my roommate!

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Sae Jeong (my roommate) is the first who made me experience the Koreans wonderfulness. Both our English skills were questionable – unfortunately, it may still be. However, we exchanged on msn for hours, days, weeks… years. We were telling each other everything, first crushes, first parties, first boyfriends, teenage troubles (“I hate my parents!”). Unbelievable as it is, we made it through. I love her from the bottom of my heart, and if it was not for her, I would have never met these exceptional persons I will introduce you too.

When it became too unbearable to be 9 000kms away, she came to visit me in France and I went to visit her in Korea. It is so unbelievable that because of a tiny email, my studies, my career plans, even my taste in men have changed!

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You may wonder what is so different about her that kept us so close over time. One word: crazy. When I say crazy, I do not mean “teenage crazy” like “Oh my god, I’m a lesbian?!” I truly mean, wildly insane. Only Sae Jeong can wonder hours thinking of having a dwarf baby or telling me I am sexy only when I am sick and depressed. It is impossible to describe someone’s personality in a few words, but I think what makes her madness so special, is its antinomy with Korean culture. When Confucianism teaches you to be discreet in the crowd, outstanding individuals are even more precious.

Be Yonsei

Yonsei Banner

For the moment, I wrote mostly about Seoul and its neighborhoods vibes. I address this post to those of you who are considering to do their “study abroad” in Korea. Be prepared, it is less fun, but I hope it will be useful.

With my university, I could choose among four universities: Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Korea University and Sogang University.

DSC01062While SNU is the most prestigious university in the country, I deliberately chose to go to Yonsei and I have no regret! It has the best Korean language courses (2 hours a day from Monday to Friday – 10 hours a week). The Korean Language Institute is highly efficient, teachers are really nice, classes are small, and exams not that hard. You also have access to all the courses that are taught in English, for example I took business majors classes. Personal advice: do not take the “study abroad” courses, it is for lazy teachers and lazy students. Plus, you will only study with other exchange students which will not help you to make native friends.

Dorms are a little expensive but clean and recently built. There is no curfew! You can get in and out as much as you want. They also include a gym, a piano room, three restaurants, a coffee shop, a convenience store open 24/7 and more surprisingly, a travel agency, a nail care shop and a flower shop! Second personal advice, just be careful not to spend your life there and go enjoy the city.

DSC02517Absolutely perfect location: Yonsei is on a side of a mountain, directly upon Sinchon’s student neighborhood. The campus is huge and gorgeous (as you can see in the pictures) and the main gate is 7 minutes away from the subway station by walking. It is full of parks, trees and flowers, there is a bus if you are too lazy to walk to your classes, libraries are open 24/7, student restaurants are cheap, delicious and everywhere etc.

I could use a thousand words to express my love for this university but I think one photo is going to be enough. This is the view from the top of Yonsei Mountain (45 minutes hike from the dorms).

View from top

Food, food, food, oh yes FOOD – Part 2

Now that we covered the spicy aspect of Korean food, it is time to talk real.

There are three key components to a Korean meal: main dish, rice and kimchi.  Of course this is the strict basis, usually you get a lot more side dishes as in the picture used in the previous post. Contrary to what you could think at first when you arrive in Korea, there are countless types of main dishes. Some are so famous that they are everywhere, such as bibimpap, pajeon, barbecues, mandus, soups, and so on. However, each of these have countless variations and of course, there are countless other types of main dishes.

Contrary to Chinese cuisine, Korean dishes are less balanced in their tastes. Combinations such as sweet and sour are less common. Also, Koreans did not search for the lightest refinement as Japanese did, in other words, their gastronomy seems to me (the non-connoisseur-non-expert) less pretentious. However, it is not super heavy and super greasy. At first, I was never feeling completely full after a Korean meal as I used to. I was struck when I realized food was just way easier to digest.

The second key component, as I wrote before, is rice. The real one. Not some dry Basmati, a real, round, white, sticky rice. Some might say “once you go black, you never go back”, I could say the same about Korean rice. Above all, my favorite was the wholegrain rice that gave a purple color to it. Fortunately you cannot see the saliva at the corner of my mouth right now.

From Hyunwoo Sun's flickr - http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/legalcode - No modification

From Hyunwoo Sun’s flickr – http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/legalcode – No modification

Last but not least, the key element that exceeds the name of food to become a divinity: kimchi. Mind my word, kimchi is more than a side dish, it is a religion that embrace all the Korean culture. Imagine that during the Korean War, the Korean president personally asked the American president to make kimchi available to the troops, because it was vitally important to their morale.

Brief description, it is Chinese cabbage, dried with salt, which macerates into a seasoning red paste mostly made of red chili pepper. Traditionally, kimchi was made with the last vegetables of the season, then buried in big terra cotta jars, in order to be eaten during the winter (as I was told). It smells really bad, tastes rather spicy and sour, but it is worse getting used to it!

I lay down a challenge to any reader, after 7 month in Korea, I was eating rice and kimchi for breakfast, will you?